Guatemala, part 3: La Antigua Guatemala

As we sit watching a blizzard drop a couple of feet of snow outside–and with an unexpected snow day off from work–there is finally time to finish up writing about our visit to Guatemala in September 2014, ending with the beautiful city of Antigua. See the earlier posts on Flores/Tikal, and Lake Atitlán

When planning this trip around our time at Lake Atitlan, we soon realized it would be difficult to get from the lake back to Guatemala City, and fly home to Boston, all in one day. Well, unless we left at an unreasonably early hour in the morning, a practice we have studiously avoided ever since a 2003 trip to Venice, which required us to be waiting on a dock for a vaporetto to the airport at 4AM.

Now, we try to manage more leisurely travel connections, and so we began looking into staying a night in Guatemala City, which soon became three nights in Antigua as we learned that city was one of the most picturesque in Guatemala, was a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was also very walkable, something we look for in any city we visit.

La Antigua Guatemala, as it’s sometimes referred to, was the capital of Guatemala during the Spanish colonial period, from 1543 to about 1776, and was officially named Santiago de los Caballeros. The city was devastated by both lava flows and earthquakes, and was finally moved to a safer location: what is now Guatemala City.

Although the earthquakes destroyed much, there are a lot of the old Spanish buildings that that have been preserved, and some are in the process of restoration.

Day 1: getting oriented, and a rainstorm

The drive from Lake Atitlan took about two and a half hours, and was a pleasant journey with much to look at on the way. We got to our hotel, the Meson Panza Verde, a little after noon and checked in to find we had been upgraded to a larger room — apparently their standard practice when there are better rooms available. After admiring our delightful accommodations, we freshened up and set out find some lunch.

panzaverdepanzaverde2

Our hotel was an easy 5-block walk to the Parque Central, aptly named and situated in a large, open square. It was a beautiful place to stroll, or just sit and people watch. Most days found us here at least part of the time. Many sights are easily walkable from the park, so if you’re close to the park you’re golden.

Also right near the park is Monoloco, a touristy but fun place that is apparently, for the many, many (many!) expat Americans who live there, the equivalent of Cheers. It is owned by a Bostonian, as we discovered after spying this homage to the Red Sox on the wall.

redsox

We had heard about the place as being a fun bar to hang out in, especially if you were tired of Guatemalan food (we were not), or wanted to watch sports (we did not), but as we were really, really hungry, we gave it a go. The food was actually pretty good, and the beer was cold. Win.

After lunch, we got oriented to the layout of the east/west calles and north/south avenidas, all laid out in a grid fashion around the Parque Central. There were several cathedral ruins we wanted to see, but that afternoon threatened rain, so all we had time for was a stroll to La Merced, snapping a few few shots of the famous Santa Caterina arch on the way, We made it back to the hotel just in time before the skies opened.

arch

Before dinner in the hotel, we wandered into the (very tiny) bar/lounge area, and enjoyed some wine in front of a fire. Soon, we were drawn into a conversation with the three others in the bar, one of whom we discovered later was the hotel owner, Bruce, a lovely and interesting man. We enjoyed talking with him and the other couple about travel, where we’d been on this trip and others, where they recommended we try next. It seemed nearly everyone we met on this trip was an expat or hoping to become one soon. The other gentleman was an expat Canadian who had a small lodge in Honduras; he gave us his card. Perhaps someday…

Day 2: ruins, and a cooking lesson

After breakfast at the hotel (included, and excellent), we set out early to explore some of the ruins around the city. Our first stop was Las Capucines, the fascinating remains of a cathedral and attached convent, with a circular cloister with what were at the time somewhat modern accommodations, with individual privies in each small nun’s room.

We also visited the ruins of Santa Clara.

 

capuchins

We had asked Bruce what he would recommend for places to eat (besides his own excellent hotel dining room, of course). He pointed us to La Cuevita de los Urquizú, which turned out to be a spectacular tip, and a place we may not have gone into on our own without a recommendation.

It was an open storefront onto the street, with pots of food enticing you in by their smell. A long narrow hall leads down to a light and plant filled courtyard in back.

We both chose the subanik, a spicy stew of pork, chicken and beef in a rich sauce. I selected rice and a beet dish that looked interesting, and Rob went for rice with guacamole; everything came with warm, freshly made tortillas and tamales. Next to the pepian lunch in Santa Cruz, this was probably our second favorite Guatemalan meal.

subanik

After lunch, we walked around the Parque Central, but once again it began to rain, so we waited it out a bit under one of the galleries that surrounded the main square. Once it let up we made a dash for a likely looking wine bar we had spied near Santa Caterina arch, called Sabor del Tiempo. The shop was really charming, with wines, chocolates, and other products for sale. There were a few seats for those who wanted to enjoy a glass of wine in the main shop (there was an attached restaurant in back).

We had an afternoon cooking class booked at El Frijol Feliz Cooking School, not too far from our hotel. Upon arriving we were delighted to discover that we were sharing the class with a couple we had met at the lodge at Lake Atitlan (classes were limited to 6 people, as the kitchen was very small).

Lessons were held in the back kitchen of a restaurant, and although the owner spoke excellent English (he was from Spain originally, I believe), the woman teaching us was Guatemalan and did not speak English. We had no trouble understanding her instructions with our collective limited Spanish, however.

We had a fantastic time learning how to make chile rellenos, frijoles volteados, and mole platanos. Our tortilla making skills could use some practice, but we laughed a ton, ate more, and spent a long time talking travel over dinner with Chad and Kimberley.

cookingcooking3cooking2

Day 3: more ruins, the marketplace, and parades

After breakfast we decided to head out to San Jeronimo, and then La Reccolleccion,one of the largest of the ruins. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, this massive site was probably the most “ruined” in some ways — giant pillars and walls lay everywhere, slowly being reclaimed by nature. One of the most fascinating things was that despite the obvious potential hazards, there were no prohibitions from walking or climbing anywhere.

recoleccionrecoleccion2recoleccion3

After spending a good bit of time exploring all of the rooms and courtyards at La Reccoleccion, we made our way to the large outdoor market, where you could purchase pretty much anything, from fruit to household supplies, socks to movies on DVD.

marketplacemarket2

In the afternoon, we made our way back to the center, looking for an “authentic” Guatemalan lunch. Unfortunately, we tried with a table at the surprisingly empty (red flag) Fonda de Calle Real, which has three locations in Antigua and which we had read good reviews about. However, after looking at the quite overpriced (red flag) menu, and waiting at least 15 minutes for anyone to even acknowledge our presence, we declared it a garfunkel and took our leave (we had not ordered nor spoken to anyone but the hostess, who didn’t seem surprised in the least as we left…another red flag).

(Travel tip: One thing we have learned to trust over the many years of travel is our “garfunkel” meter: as long as we have not already ordered anything, there is no shame in politely leaving a place if you are uncomfortable or feel that you have just stumbled into a horrible mistake of a tourist trap.)

That afternoon, we did a little shopping at a well-run shop called Nim Po’t, a large place that stocked fairly priced local textiles, pottery, and other goods.

One delightful aspect of Antigua we did not expect, but certainly took advantage of a couple of times while there, were the several nice little wine bars to sit, have a drink, and people watch. Sabor del Tiempo, which we already mentioned, was one, and another, even smaller and more intimate, was called Tobacco y Vino, truly a gem of a wine tasting spot with several interesting varietals available to taste.

On this afternoon we were enjoying a glass of wine, when we suddenly heard a commotion — and what turned out to be a parade coming right past our window seat. Guatemalan independence day was a couple of days away, and it appeared that everyone in the city was out early from school and work in preparation for the holiday. Bandstands were being set up in the square, flags were being hung, and parades with students marching and chanting patriotic slogans were happening around town.

flag

One of the delights of traveling is encountering these spontaneous moments. While you can never plan for it, obviously, it’s a good reminder to allow yourself the ability to “go with the flow”, so that if something comes along you can enjoy it.

Another unexpected but wonderful aspect of our time in Antigua was the number of expats we met, from the U.S. and other countries, truly interesting and friendly people who were delighted to share their stories, tips, and encouragement about traveling in or moving to Guatemala. While I’m not sure that’s in the cards for us, connecting with these adventurous souls only feeds our travel bug.

It’s a serious disease. Where to next?

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